James Harrington, The Stumbling-Block of Disobedience and Rebellion removed (1659)

James Harrington (1611–1677)  


Note: This is part of the Leveller Collection of Tracts and Pamphlets.



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T.310 [1659??] James Harrington, The Stumbling-Block of Disobedience and Rebellion, Cunningly imputed by P. H. unto Calvin, remov’d, in a Letter to the said P. H. from J. H. (1659).


This HTML version comes from the 1771 edtiion edited by John Toland: The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, with an Account of His Life by John Toland (London: Becket and Cadell, 1771).

Estimated date of publication

c. 1659.

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Not listed in Thomason's Catalog.

Editor’s Introduction

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Text of Pamphlet

THE STUMBLING-BLOCK OF DISOBEDIENCE and REBELLION, Cunningly imputed by P. H. unto Calvin, remov’d, in a Letter to the said P. H. from J. H.

Let no Man put a Stumbling-Block in his Brother’s Way, Rom. xiv. 13.


I GAVE my judgment upon your late book (that I mean against Calvin) in such manner among som gentlemen, that they desired me to write something in answer to it, which if there happen to be need, I may. In the mean time it will, perhaps, be enough, if I acquaint you with as much as I have acquainted them. In this book of yours you speak some things as a politician only, others as a politician and a divine too. Now to repeat a few, and yet as many I think as are needful of each kind, I shall begin with the former.

The rise, progress, and period of the commonwealth of Lacedemon is observable in authors by these steps.

1. The insufficiency of the monarchy.

2. The form of the commonwealth.

3. An infirmity in the form, and a cure of it.

4. The corruption and dissolution of the whole.

All which happened within the compass of eight hundred years.

P. 39, 40, 41.To the first you say, That the Spartan kings were as absolute monarchs as any in those times, till Eurytion, or Eurypon, to procure the favour and good-will of the rascal-rabble (so you commonly call the people) purchas’d nothing but the loss of royalty, besides an empty name unto his family, thence call’d the Euripontidæ.

It is true that Plutarch in the life of Lycurgus says, That Eurypon was the first, who, to obtain favour with the people, let loose the reins of government; and this he saith there without shewing any necessity that lay upon the king so to do: nevertheless that such necessity there was, is apparent in Agis, where he affirmeth, That a king of Lacedemon could never come to be equal unto any other king, but only by introducing equality among the people; forasmuch as a servant or lieutenant of Seleucus, or Ptolemy, was worth more than ever were all the kings of Sparta put together. Which latter speech, if a man consider the narrowness of the Laconic territory, being but a part of Peloponnesus, must needs evince the former action to have been not so voluntary in Eurypon, as in prudence unavoidable. But Eurypon having by this means rather confessed the infirmity of the monarchy, than introduced any cure of the government, it remained that the people not yet brought under fit orders must needs remain in disorders, as they did till the institution of the commonwealth.

The monarchy, that is or can be absolute, must be founded upon an army planted by military colonies upon the overbalance of land being in dominion of the prince; and in this case there can neither be a nobility, nor a people to gratify, at least without shaking the foundation, or disobliging the army. Wherefore the Spartan kings having a nobility or people to gratify, were not absolute. It is true, you call the kings of France absolute; so do others, but it is known that in the whole world there is not a nobility nor a people so frequently flying out or taking arms against their princes, as the nobility and people of France.

The monarch, that is founded upon a nobility, or a nobility and the people (as by the rise and progress of the Norman line in our story is apparently necessary) must gratify the nobility, or the nobility and the people, with such laws and libertys as are fit for them, or the government (as we have known by experience, is found in France, and no doubt was seen by Eurypon) becometh tyrannical, be the prince otherwise never so good a man.

Thus Carilaus, in whose reign the commonwealth was instituted by Lycurgus, is generally affirmed to have been a good man, and yet said by Aristotle to have been a tyrant. It remaineth therefore with you to shew how a good man can otherwise be a tyrant than by holding monarchical government without a sufficient balance, or if you please, how he that shall undertake the like, be he never so good or well deserving a man, can be any other; or confess that not the favour of princes (by which if they be well balanced they lose nothing) nor the usurpation of the people (by which without a popular balance they get nothing) but the infirmity of the monarchy caused the commonwealth of Lacedemon. And what less is said by Plutarch, or thus rendered by yourself:p. 41. Not the people only sent messages to Lycurgus for his counsel, but the kings were as desirous he should return from his travels, in hopes that his presence would bridle and restrain the people: but Lycurgus applied not himself unto either, being resolved to frame both into one commonwealth.

p. 43.To the form of this commonwealth, you say, That whatever the kings lost, the people got little by this alteration, being lest out of all imployment in affairs of state, and forced to yield obedience unto thirty masters, wheras before they had but two.

A strange affirmation, seeing the oracle containing the model of Lacedemon is thus recorded by your author, When thou hast divided the people into tribes and linages, thou shalt establish the senat, consisting with the two kings of thirty senators, and assemble the people as there shall be occasion, where the senat shall propose and dismiss the people without suffering them to debate. Now who seeth not that the people having no right to debate, must therefore have had the right to resolve, or else were to be assembled for nothing? but the ultimate result is the sovereign power in every government. It is true, the Greek of the oracle is obsolete, and abstruse; but then it is not only interpreted by Plutarch in the sense I have given, but by the verses of the poet Tyrteus, which the kings themselves, tho they would have made other use of, acknowledged unto the people to be authentick.

They having of Apollo sought,

This oracle from Delphos brought;

Unto the Spartan kings, among

The senators, it doth belong

To moderate in royal chairs,

And give their votes in all affairs;

And when they have proposed these,

The people choose whatere they please.

Of many other testimonies, I shall add no more than one out of Isocrates; I am not ignorant, saith he, to the Areopagites, that the Lacedemonians flourish for this cause especially, that their government is popular.

p. 45.To the infirmity of this form, and the cure of it you say, That the royalty and power of the kings being thus impaired, the people absolutely discharged from having any hand at all in publick government, and the authority of the senate growing every day more insolent and predominant, by reason that (albeit the senators were elected by the people) they had their places for term of life, the kings resolved upon a course of putting the people into such a condition as might enable them to curb and controul the senators, to which end they ordained the ephori, magistrates to be annually chosen out of the body of the people.

In which first you make that to be a practice of the kings against the senate, which by your author is plain to have been a combination of the kings, and the senate against the people; for the people upon the insolency and predominancy of the kings and the senate, fell, as in that case the inevitable nature of them, upon counsel how to defend themselves, and so assumed the power of debate. Hereupon the kings Theopompus and Polidore would have added unto the tenor of the oracle, that if the people went about by debate to change the propositions of the senate, it should be lawful for the kings and the senate to null the result of the people; which practice, if it had past, must have made the kings and the senate altogether uncontroulable; wherefore the people incensed at it, put a bit into the mouth of the senate, by the institution of the ephori.De Leg. 3. This is the clear sense of Plutarch, which he taketh out of Plato, who affirmeth the ephorate to have been set up against the hereditary power of the kings; with whom agree both Aristotle and Cicero; the former affirming this magistracy to contain the whole commonwealth, inasmuch as the people having obtained it, were quiet;Pol. lib. 2. and the latter that the ephori in Lacedemon were so opposed to the kings, as the tribunes in Rome to the consuls.De Leg. 3. Now if other authors attribute the institution of the ephori unto the kings, and there be a story affirmed as well by Plutarch as others, that Theopompus having thus created the ephori, and being told by his queen he had done that which would leave narrower power to his children, answered well, that it would leave that which would be narrower, but longer: this is neither any riddle nor kind of contradiction to the former sense, seeing, when we say that Henry the Third instituted the parliament to be assistant to him in his government, we no more doubt of that, than how it is to be understood. Nor if his queen had said as she of Lacedemon, and our king had made the like answer, would that have altered any thing, or proved the woman to have been, as you will have it, the better prophet, seeing either government lasted longer for either reformation, nor came to alter, but through the alteration of the balance, which was nothing to the woman’s prophecy.

The ruin of this balance, and corruption of the commonwealth, you wholly omit, to the end, that picking up your objections against the government in vigour, out of the rubbish and dissolution of it you may cast dust in mens eyes, or persuade them that the ephori trusting to the power and interest they had in the commonalty, came to usurp upon the kings, and to be tyrants, as they are called by Plato and Aristotle; so you affirm.p. 55.

But the truth is thus recorded by Plutarch in the life of Agis. So soon as the Lacedemonians having ruined Athens, became full of gold and silver, the commonwealth began to break. Nevertheless, the lots or division of lands made by Lycurgus yet remaining, the equality of the foundation held good, till Epictetus, an ill-natured fellow, became ephore, and having a mind to disinherit his son, got a law to pass, whereby any man might dispose of his lot as he pleased. This by him pursued of mere malice to his son, was hurried on by the avarice of others, whose riches came thus to eat the people so clearly out of their lands, that in a short time there remained not above an hundred freeholders in all Sparta. This he shews to have been the rise of the oligarchy. The oligarchy thus balanced totally excluded the people, and murther’d Agis, the first king that was ever put to death by the ephori; and to these times, about which Plato and Aristotle lived, relateth that tyranny, which they, who, as was shewn, commended the ephorate in the commonwealth, now laid into it in oligarchy. Thus have you fetcht arguments against a commonwealth, that are nothing to it. Again, whereas Agis and Cleomenes, by the restitution of the lots of Lycurgus, were assertors of popular power, you insinuate them to have been assertors of monarchy; such is your play with human authors, or as a politician. Now let us see, whether you have dealt any thing better with Scripture, or bin more careful as a divine. In order to this discovery, I shall repeat that piece of Calvin, which you call the stumbling-block of disobedience. Calvin having preached obedience to your good approbation, comes at length to this expression:Calv. Inst. lib. c. 20. § 31. But still I must be understood of private persons; for if there be now any popular officers ordained to moderate the licentiousness of kings (such as were the ephori, set up of old against the kings of Sparta, the tribuns of the people against the Roman consuls, and the demarchs against the Athenian senate, of which power perhaps, as the world now goes, the three estates are seized in each several kingdom when solemnly assembled) so far am I from hindring them to put restraints upon the exorbitant power of kings, as their office binds them, that I conceive them rather to be guilty of perfidious dissimulation, if they connive at kings, when they play the tyrants, or wantonly insult on the people; in that so doing they betray the liberty of the subject, of which they know themselves to be made guardians by God’s own ordinance.

What Calvin says of the Athenian demarchs, they having been magistrats of another nature, is a mistake, but such an one, as destroys no other part of his assertion, the rest of the parenthesis, or that which he saith of the ephori, and the tribuns being confirmed, as hath been already shewn by Plato and Aristotle, by Cicero and Plutarch. Wherefore of the ephori and the tribuns enough; now why the estates in a Gothick Model should be of less power, no politician in the world shall ever shew a reason; the estates are such by virtue of their estates, that is, of their over-balance in dominion. You are then either speculatively to shew how the over-balance of dominion should not amount unto empire, or practically that the over-balance of dominion hath not amounted unto empire, and that in a quiet government, or it can be no otherwise in a quiet government, than that the over-balance of dominion must amount unto empire. This principle being now sufficiently known, is the cause it may be why you choose in this place to speak rather like a divine, as you suppose, than a politician.p. 290. For you would fain learn, you say, of Calvin, in what part of the word of God we shall find any such authority given to such popular magistrats, as he tells us of.

To which by the way I answer, that God founded the Israelitish government upon a popular balance; that we find the people of Israel judging the tribe of Benjamin, and by the oracle of God, levying war against them, which are acts of sovereign power: therefore a popular balance, even by the ordinance of God himself expressed in Scripture, amounted unto empire.Judg. xx.

p. 290.But you, when you have asked in what part of the word of God we shall find any such authority given to popular magistrats; answer, not in the Old Testament, you are sure. For when Moses first ordained the seventy elders, it was not to diminish any part of that power which was invested in him, but to ease himself of some part of the burthen lying upon him, as you will have to appear plainly by the 18th of Exodus, where Moses upon the advice of Jethro chose able men out of all Israel, and made them rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.Numb. [Editor: illegible character]. 46. Now I am sure that about this time the number of the men of Israel was above six hundred thousand, and so any man may be sure that the elders thus chosen (should we count but the rulers of the thousands only) must have come at the least to six hundred: wherefore, you cannot be sure that this makes any thing to the election of the seventy elders.

Well, but out of these, say you, God afterwards, in the eleventh of Numbers, willed Moses to choose the seventy elders.

You may do me a greater favour than you can suddenly imagine, to tell me really for what cause, or upon what authority your speech is so positive, that God willed Moses to choose the seventy elders out of those that were chosen in the eighteenth of Exodus. For whereas Moses is willed to choose them out of such as he knew to be elders, such there were in honour among the people, though not in power, before the election of those advised by Jethro, as appears, Ex. iii. 16. and iv. 29. But had this been as you would have it, what is the necessity, that because there lay an appeal unto Moses from those in Exodus, that is, from the Jethronian elders, or courts which sat afterwards in the gates of the temple, and of every city; therefore there must needs lie an appeal from the seventy elders or the sanhedrim unto Moses, especially while the whole stream of Jewish writers or Talmudists, who should have had some knowledge in their own commonwealth, unanimously affirms that there was no such thing?Grotius ad Ex. xviii. 21. Whereupon to the election of the former elders, saith Grotius, in the place of these came the judges in the gates, and in the place of Moses the sanhedrim. Nor need we go farther than the Scripture, for the certainty of this assertion, where the seventy are chosen not to stand under Moses,Numb. xi. but with him; not to diminish his burthen, or bear it under him, with an appeal in difficult cases to him, as is expressed in the election of the Jethronian elders, but to bear the burthen with him, and without any mention of such appeal. Moses before the election of the Jethronian judges had the whole burthen of judicature lying upon him; after their election, the burthen of the appeals only: wherefore if the seventy elders were indeed instituted to bear the burthen with Moses, there thenceforth lay no appeal unto Moses, which is yet clearer in this precept:Deut. xvii. 8. If there arise a matter of controversy within thy gates, (which plainly is addrest to the Jethronian courts) too hard for thee in judgment, then shalt thou come unto the priest and the Levite, (by which in the sense of all authors Jewish and Christian is understood the sanhedrim) or to the judge that shall be in those days, (the suffes or dictator) and they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment: whence by the clear sense of Scripture, all matter of appeal in Israel lay unto the sanhedrim.p. 292. Your next argument, that there must be nothing in all this but easing the supreme magistrate of some part of the burthen, which was before too heavy for him, without any diminution in the least respect of his power, is, that when God had taken of the Spirit which was upon Moses, and put it upon the seventy elders, the Spirit yet rested upon Moses in as full a measure as it did at first: I grant in a fuller, for I believe his wisdom was the greater for this diminution of his power, it being through the nature of the balance apparently impossible that he could be any more than a prince in a commonwealth. But your argument can be of no force at all, unless you will have him to have been less wise, for not assuming sovereign power, where, without confusion, it was altogether impossible he should have held it. A prince in a commonwealth subsisteth by making himself, or being made of use unto the free course of popular orders; but a sovereign lord can have no other subsistence or security, than by cutting off or tearing up all roots, that do naturally shoot or spring up into such branches. To conclude, if the congregation of the people, in law to be made, had such power as was shewn, and in law, so made, the ultimate appeal lay unto the sanhedrim; why, are not here two estates in this commonwealth, each by God’s own ordinance, and both plain in Scripture? Well, but when they came, you will say, to make unto themselves kings, whatever power they had formerly, was now lost. This at best were but to dispute from the folly of a people against an ordinance of God; for what less is testified by himself in those words to Samuel, They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me that I should not reign over them?1 Sam. viii. 7. The government of the senate and the people is that only, which is or can be the government of laws and not of men, and the government of laws and not of men, is the government of God and not of men:Arist. pol. 3. c. 12. He that is for the government of laws, is for the government of God; and he that is for the government of a man, is for the government of a beast. Kings, no question, where the balance is monarchical, are of divine right, and, if they be good, the greatest blessings that the government so standing can be capable of; but the balance being popular, as in Israel, in the Grecian, in the Sicilian tyrannies, they are the direst curse that can befal a nation. Nor are divines, who will always have them to be of divine right, to be hearkned to, seeing they affirm that which is clean contrary to Scripture, for in this case, saith Hosea, they have set up kings, and not by me; they have made princes, and I knew it not.Hos. viii. 4. Pharaoh may impose the making of brick without the allowance of straw, but God never required of any man or of any government, that they should live otherwise, than according to their estates. It is true if a man’s want make him a servant, there are rules in Scripture that enjoin him the duty of a servant: but shew me the rule in Scripture that obligeth a man who can live of himself unto the duty of a servant. Hath God less regard unto a nation than to a man?Hos. xiii. Yet the people of Israel, continuing upon a popular agrarian, though God forewarned them, that by this means they would make themselves servants, would needs have a king; whence, saith the same prophet, O Israel, thou hast destroyed thy self, but in me is thine help; I will be thy King (which foretels the restitution of the commonwealth, for) where is any other that may save thee in all thy cities? and thy judges of whom thou saidst give me a king and princes. I gave thee a king in mine anger, (that is in Saul,) and I took him away in my wrath, that is in the captivity; so at least saith Rabbi Bechai, with whom agree Nachmoni, Gyschome, and others. Kimchi, it is true, and Maimonides, are of opinion, that the people making a king, displeased God not in the matter, but in the form only, as if the root of a tree, the balance of a government, were form only and not matter. Nor do our divines yet, who are divided into like parties, see more than the rabbies. Both the royalists and the commonwealthsmen of each sort, that is, whether divines or Talmudists, appeal unto the letter of the law, which the royalists (as the translators of our Bible) render thus:Deut. xvii. 14. When thou shalt say (the commonwealthsmen, as Diodati thus, If thou com to say) I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are about me, thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose. The one party will have the law to be positive, the other contingent, and with a mark of detestation upon it; for so where God speaketh of his people’s doing any thing like the nations that were about them, it is every where else understood. But let these, which are no niceties, be as you will; who seeth not that to argue from this place for the necessity of the king, is as if one from that foregoing should argue for the necessity of the judges?Verse 9. The words are these, Thou shalt come unto the priest and to the Levite, which, as was said, is to the sanhedrim, and (that is or) to the judge that shall be in those days.Book 5. c. 2. Yet that the judge, not by any necessity implied in these words, but through the mere folly of the people came to be set up in Israel, is plain by Josephus, where he shews that the Israelites laying by their arms, and betaking themselves unto their pleasures, while they did not as God had commanded, root out the Canaanites from among them, but suffered them to dwell with them, suffered also the form of their commonwealth to be corrupted, and the senate to be broken; the senators nor other solemn magistrates being elected as formerly, which both in word and fact is confirmed also by the Scripture. In words, as where it is thus written:Judg. ii. 16. When Joshua had let the people go (that is, had dismissed the army, and planted them upon their popular balance) the children of Israel went every man unto his own inheritance to possess the land, and the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that out-lived Joshua, that is, while the sanhedrim continued after him; but when the elders hereof came to die, and the people elected them no successors, they lived evil in the sight of the Lord, and having broken their civil orders, forsook also their religion, the government whereof depended upon the sanhedrim, and served Baalim.Judg. i. 3. And for the matter of fact included in these words, it farther appears, where Judah said unto Simeon his brother, come up with me into my lot, that we may fight against the Canaanites, and I likewise will go with thee into thy lot; so Simeon went with him By which the tribes leaguing at their pleasure one with another, it is plain, that the sanhedrim, their common ligament, was broken.Pacuvius apud Livium, lib. 23. Now except a man shall say, that this neglect of God’s ordinance was according unto the law of God, there is no disputing from that law to the necessity of the judge, which happened through no other than this exigence (quippe aut rex, quod abominandum, aut quod unum liberæ civitatis consilium est, senatus habendus est) wherefore the judge of Israel was not necessitated by the will of God, but foreseen only by his providence, not imposed by the law, but provided by it as an expedient in case of necessity; and if no more can be pleaded from the law for the judge against whom God never declared, much less is there to be pleaded from the same for the king, against whom he declared so often. There is nothing more clear nor certain in Scripture, than that the commonwealth of Israel was instituted by God; the judges and the kings no otherwise, than through the imprudence and importunity of the people. But you who have no better name for the people in a commonwealth than the rascally rabble, will have kings at a venture to be of divine right, and to be absolute; whereas in truth, if divine right be derived unto kings, from these of the Hebrews only, it is most apparent that no absolute king can be of divine right.Deut. xvii. For these kings, if they were such by the law alledged, then by the same law they could neither multiply horses nor wives, nor silver nor gold, without which no king can be absolute; but were to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, and so by consequence were regulated monarchs; nay, could of right enact no law, but as those by David for the reduction of the ark, for the regulation of the priests, for the election of Solomon, which were made by the suffrage of the people, no otherwise than those under the kings of Rome, and ours under the late monarchy. What then is attributed by Calvin unto popular magistrates, that is not confirmed by Scripture and reason? Yet nothing will serve your turn, but to know what power there was in the sanhedrim to controul their kings: to which I answer, that both Schickardus and Grotius, with the full consent of the Talmudists, have assured you, that in case the king came to violate those laws and statutes, it was in the power of the sanhedrim to bring him unto corporal punishment.De jure B. ac P. lib 1. cap. 1. Moreover it is shewn by the latter out of Josephus, that Hyrcanus, when he could not deliver Herod from the sanhedrim by power, did it by art. Nor is your evasion so good as that of Hyrcanus, while you having nothing to say to the contrary, but that Herod when he was questioned was no king, shuffle over the business without taking any notice as to the point in controversy, that Hyrcanus, who could not save Herod from the question, was king.

2 Chr. xix.The manner of the restitution of the sanhedrim made by Jehoshaphat plainly shews, that even under the monarchy the power of the sanhedrim was co-ordinate with that of the kings, at least, such is the judgment of the Jewish writers; for saith Grotius, the king (as is rightly noted by the Talmudists) was not to judge in some cases; and to this the words of Zedekiah seem to relate, where to the sanhedrim demanding the prophet Jeremiah, he said, Behold he is in your hands, for the king is not he that can do any thing with you.Ad Mat. v.Jer. xxxviii. 5. Nor, except David, had ever any king session or vote in this council. To which soon after he adds, that this court continued till Herod the Great, whose insolence, when exalting itself more and more against the law, the senators had not in time, as they ought, suppressed by their power; God punished them in such manner for the neglect of their duty, that they came all to be put to death by Herod, except Sameas only, whose foresight and frequent warning of this or the like calamity they had as frequently contemned. In which words Grotius following the unanimous consent of the Talmudists, if they knew any thing of their own orders, expresly attributes the same power unto the sanhedrim, and chargeth them with the same duty in Israel, that is attributed unto the three estates in a Gothick Model, and charged upon these by Calvin.

p. 289.Thus that there never lay any appeal from the sanhedrim unto Moses, nor, except when the Jews were in captivity, or under provincial government, to any other magistrate, as also that they had power upon their kings, being that your self say, Is the objection paramount, and which not answered, you confess that the three estates convened in parliament, or any other popular magistrate Calvin dreams of, notwithstanding any discontinuance or non-usage on their parts, or any prescription alledged by kings to the contrary, may resume and exercise that authority which God hath given them, whenever they shall find a fit time for it. And this letter shewing plainly that you have in no wise answered this objection, it remains that your whole book, even according to your own acknowledgment, is confuted by this letter. Or if you be of another mind, I shall hope to hear farther from you.